Weekend Polls Fail to Replicate Summer Surge for Independence

Regular readers will be aware that recent polls from Ipsos MORI and TNS BMRB have suggested that there has been an increase in support for independence during the course of the summer – and that contrary to all previous polling since March a majority would now vote Yes in a second referendum. However, neither of the two companies had previously asked how people would vote in a second referendum and neither asked the respondents to their latest survey whether they voted Yes or No a year ago. We suggested that between them these features suggested a need for caution before coming to the firm conclusion that there had been a marked shift in favour of independence.

This weekend two polls have been published that do not have these features. The first is a YouGov poll in yesterday’s Times, the second a Panelbase poll in today’s Sunday Times and Heart FM. Both of these companies have asked how people would vote in a second referendum on a regular basis during the course of the last year, YouGov last doing so in May (just after the UK election), Panelbase at the beginning of July. Meanwhile the respondents to both of these polls were asked what they did in last year’s referendum and their responses have been used to weight the poll so that the distribution of those responses matches the actual result.

The picture they paint of what has happened to public opinion in recent weeks is different from the impression created by the Ipsos MORI and TNS BMRB polls.

YouGov’s poll puts Yes on 48%, No on 52% (after Don’t Knows are excluded). That represents a statistically insignificant one point swing to Yes since May, and is the sixth YouGov poll in a row (dating back to March) that puts Yes support at between 47% and 49%.  Meanwhile the Panelbase poll puts Yes in today’s poll on 47%, No on 53%, exactly the same as in the company’s previous poll. It represents the fifth time in a row (dating back to January) that Panelbase have put No ahead. In short, there is no sign at all in these polls that the level of support for independence has changed significantly during the summer.

Instead, the picture painted by today’s Panelbase poll in particular is that very few minds indeed have been changed since the referendum held a year ago on Friday. As many as 87% of those who voted Yes a year ago say that they would do so again, but so also do 87% of No voters. The main reason why support for independence is a little higher now is that Yes is ahead (by 52% to 36%) amongst the (inevitably) relatively small number of people in today’s poll who said they did not vote a year ago.

Indeed, the apparent stability in attitudes to the independence question is underlined by the responses to another question in today’s poll, a question that Panelbase last asked in July 2014, a couple of months before the referendum. It asks whether Scotland would be financially better or worse off under independence. While 36% now believe that Scotland would be better off financially, rather more, 45%, think it would be worse off. This balance of opinion is almost identical to that 14 months ago when 34% thought Scotland would be better off and 42% worse off.

These figures suggest that the Yes side still has to win the argument on what was one of the central issues in many voters’ minds last September. However, at the same time, the collapse in the price of oil in the last year has apparently not changed many people’s views on the issue. The only change that can be detected is that the scepticism of those who are doubtful about the financial case for independence is now more likely to be keenly felt – the proportion who believe that Scotland would be ‘much worse off’ is up from 27% in July 2014 to 33% now.

Still, whatever doubts we may now have about Ipsos MORI’s and TNS BMRB’s findings, those two polls helped add to the speculation about whether the SNP would or should promise a second independence referendum in next year’s Scottish Parliament election.  Certainly voters are more likely to think now that independence could come sooner rather than later than they were immediately before the SNP’s landslide success in May. According to Panelbase as many as 31% now think it will happen within the next five to ten years, up from 25% in April.

But as yet at least it is still far from clear that most Scots want another referendum.

According to YouGov 59% of all Scots do not think that the SNP should promise a second referendum in their manifesto next year, while only 29% believe it should. Equally, both of this weekend’s polls find that only just over a third (YouGov 35%, Panelbase 36%) would like a referendum to be held relatively soon (and in Panelbase’s case, at least, this represents a three point drop on the position in April). Not least of the reasons for the relatively low level of support for a second referendum is that while a majority of SNP supporters would like one to be held relatively soon, a substantial minority (YouGov 32%, Panelbase 26%) are doubtful about the idea. Perhaps some SNP supporters at least fear that an early second referendum would not be won.

That is of course a mood that might yet change. Certainly YouGov suggest that support for holding a second referendum relatively soon would rise to 50% if Britain were to vote to leave the EU. Perhaps we should not be surprised that in her latest pronouncement on the subject this weekend Nicola Sturgeon has seemingly suggested that the SNP will come up with a formula that neither rules a second referendum in nor rules it out.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.